Mar 15, 2017–Asleep at the Wheel’s Ray Benson calls them the “Carnegie Halls of western swing.”
But if you are old enough to have waltzed across Texas, you know them as dance halls.
When I wrote about these two-stepping temples in 2013, Stephen Dean of Texas Dancehall Preservation, Inc., was working to chronicle their stories before they disappear. Deb Fleming is carrying on the work as President of that group.
“There were probably a thousand at the heyday,” she said. “Today, fewer than 400 of the historic halls still exist. About 25% of those have lost their function or are abandoned and vacant.”
This issue is a raw one to Fredericksburgers, with the image of beloved Turner Hall burning to embers last year. Fleming places still-standing dance halls into four categories:
1) Those that actually function as public dance halls, either full or part time. This group includes Gruene Hall and Luckenbach Dance Hall. They still operate with regular dances and concerts.
2) Those that may have one public dance a month, but also serve as rental spaces, hosting private parties and wedding receptions. Examples in the area are Twin Sisters, Kendalia, and Anhalt.
3) Halls that have been repurposed into antique stores, storage, or other retail use.
4) Halls that are vacant and have fallen into disuse, such as the ones in Hye and Cherry Spring.
As any Texan worth their boots and barbecue can tell you, dance halls are not just buildings. There is a whole other culture built up around the iconic buildings, often handed down by immigrants who settled the state. Is the TDHP preserving the structures or the culture?
“All of the above,” Fleming said. “First, we are focused on stabilizing that last group, those halls that are vacant or for sale. They are at risk and in declining mode.”
To that end, they have been awarded a grant by the Texas Historical Commission to do physical assessments of halls. A preservation architect visits the sites and looks at factors such as water infiltration and foundation issues, then recommend steps to stabilize them. The idea is to develop a tool kit that all hall caretakers can use.
Just as important to keeping the halls vibrant is continuing the culture.
“If you are a Texas artist you should be cognizant of these halls,” she said. “And if you support Texas music, why not promote these halls at the same time?”
Part of the challenge is generational. To a large extent, the halls continue to be maintained and managed by the older generation. They were raised inside these buildings, and feel a personal connection to their history. Today’s generation experiences music differently.
“To keep the halls alive, you have to book large acts,” Fleming pointed out. “The younger fans are not dancers, they are concert goers. So they stand in front of the stage like at a concert. In many halls the management requires not standing on the dance floor, just dancing. We have to figure out how we can engage and educate the younger generation.”
“You take young people into these halls and you can see the excitement on their faces.”
To raise funds and awareness, Fleming’s group is helping host the 2017 Spring Texas Dance Hall Tour starting March 20. It is a weeklong event that includes tours and concerts at Twin Sisters Dance Hall in Blanco, the Fischer Dance Hall between Blanco and Wimberley, the Luckenbach Dance Hall in Luckenbach, Sengelmann Hall in Schulenberg, and Round-Up Hall in La Grange. Performing will be Asleep at the Wheel, Lee Ann Womack, Dale Watson, the Hot Club of Cowtown, the Quebe Sisters, Heybale, and High Plains Jamboree.
This project holds a personal connection for Fleming. When the fifth generation Texan told her 85-year-old father she was going to visit the dance hall in Panna Maria 10 years ago, he told her that her grandmother had spent time there as a young girl. During her visit she learned that her great great grandparents had been among the original settlers in 1854.
“My father and I had no idea until then,” she said. “If your ancestors came to Texas in the mid to late-1800s, you probably have a connection to a town with dance hall, too.”
Details: The 2017 Spring Texas Dance Hall Tour produced by Ray Benson and the Texas Dancehall Preservation, Inc., takes place March 20-26. A complete list of artists, schedules, venues, ticket packages, and reservations can be found online at www.texasdancehalltour.com. For information call 512-921-1250 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.